The Peace Corps Writers Award for Best Poetry Book was first presented in 1997.
The winner for Peace Corps Writers 2013 Best Book of Poetry published in 2012 is The Land of the Four Rivers by Matthew A. Hamilton (Armenia 2006–08, Philippines 2008–10) published by Cervena Barva Press in 2012.
Matthew Hamilton was a Legislative Assistant on Capital Hill and, prior to that, a Benedictine Monk. He is a 1999 graduate of Belmont Abbey College with a Bachelors of Arts degree in History and has a MFA from Fairfield University. He is a poetry reader for the online magazine, Mason’s Road and Drunken Boat. He was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize and has published in A-Minor Magazine, Atticus Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Noctua Review.
In his review of this collection for our site, Mark B Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93) wrote:
Most of the poems in Matthew Hamilton’s chapbook The Land of the Four Rivers have the look of three-by-five photographs, with a dozen or more lines of more or less equal length. And like good photographs, they are colorful evocations, careful snapshots of what he saw and experienced in Armenia. But unlike with Peace Corps photographs, no one is likely to find anything tangential and inessential to comment on in Hamilton’s poems. This is a testament to his poems’ clarity and accessibility. (They do what a surprising number of modern poems are too cowardly to do: They risk being understood.) If his poems were photographs, we would not only see them, we would step into them.
Take, for example, the opening of “Expedition into Mystery”:
I walk over to a woman selling apricots
and buy a half kilo. Her gold teeth thank me.
Then I walk to Gorki Park, pluck one
of my treats out of the bag and take a bite.
Some of the juice falls on the sidewalk.
A dog walks over and licks it up.
The storytelling is straightforward, the images (apricots, gold teeth) concrete. Encounters with voracious, half-starved but somehow gentle street dogs are as common in Volunteers’ experiences as episodes of homesickness, and the apricot-juice-devouring dog of the poem will therefore resonate with former Volunteers. But the dog is equally likely to resonate with non-Volunteers. Although the poet doesn’t specify that the animal is a street dog, context suggests it. Here’s a dog desperate enough to drink fruit juice off of concrete. The connotation is negative: the country doesn’t care for its animals. But there’s a positive implication as well: not much is wasted here. (One of the consolations of serving in a poor part of the world is how little is thrown away.)
The poem goes on to amplify its description of the park: old men playing backgammon, lovers sneaking off behind a hedge, a group of teenagers smoking. As in a number of Hamilton’s poems, the focus moves from the concrete to the abstract, in this case language (a waitress explains the dual meaning of “oven” as the poem’s speaker blushes) and, ultimately, love.
The blurb from poet Ravi Shankar on the back of The Land of the Four Rivers describes Hamilton’s poems as “ardent” and “earnest.” I think he’s right. There is no cynicism here. Hamilton’s poems are honest portraits of the world he came to know as a Volunteer and are untainted by sarcastic asides or winking irony. His conclusions are hopeful:
I did not come here to arrogantly yield to bucket baths
and icicle bedrooms. I hope the Armenians see me as a friend,
a border guard of charity.
We speak a different language, but speak to the same God.
Several of Hamilton’s poems evoke God, all without post-modern slight of hand. Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest on the top of Armenia’s Mount Ararat, thus in “Solitude”: “I walk with the children of Noah./They dance white foam and blue reflection.” A former Benedictine Monk, Hamilton doesn’t always come to praise God. “Winds of May” features a man “searching for his dead son” and the poem’s speaker who is looking for a father. The poem’s conclusion: “The two of us are alone and angry with God.”
The thirty poems in The Land of the Four Rivers give us a vivid and rich portrait of Armenia. Envy Matthew Hamilton: When he’s asked about his Peace Corps experience, he can skip the photos and instead hand over his lovely book.
All winners receive a certificate from Peace Corps Writers and a cash award to supplement their Readjustment Allowance.
Click to see the previous winners of the Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book award.
Click to purchase The Land of Four Rivers.